Every now and again you see them. Smartly turned out, splitting off into three or four groups of two. At least one of them carries an expensive-looking brief-case. With a friendly smile they arrive at your door. Perhaps annually, perhaps twice a year – I’ve not monitored their regularity. Yet.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of those benign interruptions on our lives that occur from time to time. Like children asking for a ‘penny for the Guy’ or someone collecting for the Salvation Army, some of us welcome these interruptions, others less so. Often we dispel them without much of a thought. But perhaps we should pause for exactly that.

For my part, as a non-militant atheist, I welcome the chance to debate the issues of the day with someone of a completely different worldview to my own. My experience of a Witness visit has it that their opener tends to be concern over the world’s poor or the troubles and war we live through. As I am interested in views, I hear them out. I always remain more than polite even though I have to conclude the exchange with: ‘Thanks, but I’ve explored religious solutions and have come to the informed choice that atheism is for me.’

For many years I believed there was no God of any kind. Then, two decades later, after reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ and the angrier ‘God is Not Great’ by Christopher Hitchens I found two books which supported that belief as each presented an academically-researched and vividly compelling case against religion. But that, of course, is not to say that all faith is wrong or bad. I have met good, charitable and peace-loving people who are shining examples of the best of their faiths (particularly among Muslims and Quakers). And who can overlook the great work of many faith-originated aid agencies and charities like the Fair Trade movement (Traidcraft) or the Salvation Army to name but two?

But now, on the last two visits, I have noticed children accompanying adult Witnesses.

The first time I saw a young boy of about 5 or 6 years of age alongside adult Witnesses I simply put the advent down to domestic trivialities: he was probably there because his mother was busy. But my innocence was quashed the next time the Jehovah’s descended upon our village. Now there were whole families of Witnesses, together with toddler-age children in tow. This would not necessarily be an issue, but the children seemed to be playing a distinct part in the process itself.

I suddenly realised that my response last time was compromised.

When in the presence of a minor, it is only natural to include them in the discourse and take account of them in your language (both use and misuse). I feel that the use of young children in their introductions/advances – that is, children younger than the age of reason/consent – Jehovah’s Witnesses are, firstly, compromising my response in respecting the presence of minors. For example, I feel it is not right for me to challenge the beliefs of parents in front of their children; it undermines their respect. But more important than that, one can’t help but feel that one is witnessing the exploitation of innocents.

To be clear, I believe in a parent’s right to raise their children in the manner they see best in order to produce moral citizens who play a full part in the world. And before a child has reached the age of reason and consent, as parents, we will naturally pass on our own moral framework. But to use a child in the procurement of converts to faith? Distressed, I needed to find out whether the use of minors in evangelical missions was a new phenomenon, a new directive from the Watchtower?

Personally, the level of control exercised by the Watchtower I found was shocking. Firstly, there is no way to communicate with the Watchtower directly. The only means is to book a Bible Visit in your own home. Then, on Facebook – the famous social networking site – I found most groups were closed (for invited or approved members only). Though I did find one that was open and included comments suggesting that The Watchtower issues directives that communication across all forms of open electronic mailing, such as forums, social networking sites and even e-mail open to non-Witnesses is forbidden. Such interaction is to be controlled centrally from the Watchtower itself and that Witnesses must not mix with apostates. Apostates being ex-Witnesses and JW short-hand for non-believers or even other types of Christians. Ex-Witnesses are to be shunned, even if they were friends. Family even.

On the few Facebook groups that were open, I posed the question of the use of minors. One response was: “It’s a very sad thing, but witness kids are forced to go door to door. The society sets all the rules and the witnesses follow and do whatever they are told. I am so glad I am out of that crooked organization.”

For sure, a look at support sites for ex-Witnesses demonstrated a catalogue of all types of abuse of children and teenagers within the Jehovah’s Witnesses community. But I felt that was a distraction from my immediate concern and, besides, this wasn’t the only faith to be linked with the widespread abuse of minors.

Then again, in terms of the indoctrination of minors, former chair of the American Bar Association’s Child Custody Case Committee said “Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably responsible for half of the contested custody cases involving religious issues”, thereby suggesting that Jehovah’s Witnesses are more prone to this kind of control than other faiths, at least in America. Often this takes the form of one parent becoming a Witness and then divorcing the faithless or apostate and unwilling partner, and then fighting to take or defend the children into or from the clutches of the Watchtower.

With not a single example of baptism of minors in the Bible, the Watchtower ignores the good Book (even Jesus was 30 when he was baptised) and formally enrols children into the faith with them pledging “association with God’s spirit-directed organisation“ ensuring that the child can no longer choose to leave the religion without the severe consequence of “disfellowshipping”.

Imagine shunning a child with “God’s Word commands Christians not to keep company or fellowship with a person who has been expelled from the congregation… “A simple ‘Hello’ to someone can be the first step that develops into a conversation and maybe even a friendship. Would we want to take that first step with a disfellowshiped person?” (Our Kingdom Ministry August 2002 page 3).

Even their own publication, The Awake! admits: “A lot of young people hesitate to get baptized because they fear it’s a final step that they can’t back out of. They feel that if they do something wrong, they’ll be put out of the congregation.” (Awake! March 22, 1990 page 27).

Witness children are raised in a relatively closed environment, and are often only allowed to develop relationships with other Jehovah’s Witnesses. Critical thought is normally repressed, leaving only information favourable to Jehovah’s Witnesses to be shared. They are programmed to become productive members: “In the early years, put before your children theocratic goals—regular pioneering, Bethel service or missionary work. Encourage your children to auxiliary pioneer during school vacations.” (Our Kingdom Ministry October 1983 page 2)

Yet one honest contributor to one of the Facebook groups I visited suggested that “Jehovah’s Witnesses put on a different face when confronted about their child-rearing policies. The guide, ‘Preparing for Child Custody Cases’, printed by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, coaches Witnesses what to say to conceal the extent of Witness life on the child: ‘Be careful that they {the governmental social services} don’t get the impression that they are in a demonstration at the circuit assembly, when they would show that the first things in life are service and going to the Kingdom Hall. Show hobbies, crafts, social activity, sports, and especially plans for the future. Be careful they don’t all say that they are going to be pioneers…maybe you can show an interest in art and the theatre. They must be clean, moral, honest, but with the interests that you would expect from other young people.’ (page 43)”.

He went on – “Many Witness youth resist the pressure to get baptized. The longer they wait, the more the pressure builds: ‘It is not enough simply to believe the Bible truths you have been taught, nor is it enough simply to tag along with your parents to Christian meetings. Those desiring salvation must dedicate themselves to God and do his will.” (Awake! March 22, 1990 page 26).”

Dawkins’ major preoccupation in his best-selling book ‘The God Delusion’ is the indoctrination of children born into faith families. If you like, he is concerned primarily with the corruption of innocent minds. Here we see the result on our very own doorstep.

But in today’s Britain can you imagine members of the Muslim faith coming to your door suggesting that the only thing to save you from Armageddon is the Koran? What if they were accompanied by a young Islamic boy or girl – would not the Daily Mail brigade rush to their Talk Radio or Jeremy Vine phone-ins, their Channel 5 debating/rant shows in disgust?

Apply the same comparative test with the intended reach of this pervasive faith which has the goal of worldwide ubiquity even though only 144,000 lucky Witnesses will ever be permitted into Heaven come the day of Armageddon, according to their own teachings. If we saw organised Islam providing the weird kind of sales target report, you can find the Watchtower’s 2008 review can you imagine the outcry? But here we learn 1 in every 445 people in Britain is a Jehovah’s Witness, or review the number of Baptised in that year or the amount of time spent preaching (20,641,997 hrs). This target-based evangelism coupled with the quashing of dissent on social networking sites reeks of the kind of command and control one could only rationally reconcile with a cult (see International Cultic Studies Association for some academic views on what constitutes a cult).

And, as a non-militant atheist, I find it challenging that the actions of the evangelical compels me, possibly against my better judgement, to engage militantly in the struggle for enlightenment over exactly this kind of theistic conduct.

I urge you to help me raise the profile of this issue in your local press and when you’re next visited by Witnesses. In the Forest of Dean, our local Kingdom Hall is based in Parkend and their site has just received planning permission for additional building work, presumably expansion.